Film festivals can be real insider affairs—insufferably so at times. But while distributors are sizing each other up and journalists are jockeying to file the first review of a hot title, there will be at least a few filmmakers, usually hanging out on the margins of the festival, who are true undiscovered talents. The extent to which they’re showcased varies wildly from event to event. Fantasia is one of the more egalitarian festivals on The A.V. Club’s yearly circuit, with a staff that will often stump harder for under-the-radar work than gala presentations. Over the five years I’ve covered the fest, I’ve encountered a handful of true outsiders who, while not directing a MCU movie any time soon, have at least leveled up to the point where their movies are now getting distribution. In this dispatch, I’m highlighting two of them, along with a promising debut and a movie that, for better or for worse, is hard to forget.
Potently symbolizing spirituality and repression, nuns appear in a wide range of genres, from serious-minded dramas like Novitiate to bawdy comedies and outrageous horror trash. Agnes, the latest from Oklahoma City auteur Mickey Reece, pulls in elements of all of the above for another of his singular takes on genre tropes. Just as his last film, Climate Of The Hunter, was only marginally a vampire movie, the power of Christ compels Agnes just enough to call it religious horror. Though Agnes has multiple bloody exorcism scenes, including one where a possessed nun bites off a priest’s nose, those looking for straightforward supernatural chills would be better off watching whatever turns up when they search “exorcism” on Netflix. (And those looking for salaciousness will have to wait for Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which hits U.S. theaters in December.) If, on the other other, you’re tired of seeing the same old beats hit again and again in these kind of movies, Agnes provides idiosyncratic salvation.
Agnes is a noticeable step up in production value for Reece, who casts more widely recognized actors than usual, like The Craft’s Rachel True, The Vast Of Night’s Jake Horowitz, and The Suicide Squad’s Sean Gunn, alongside his loyal ensemble of performers. Castle’s Molly C. Quinn stars as Sister Mary, the youngest nun at a strict Carmelite convent whose faith is shaken when her close friend and fellow sister, Agnes (Hayley McFarland), freaks out and starts levitating teacups at dinner in the opening scene. (Reece’s obsession with decadent desserts shot in gauzy soft focus has thankfully been carried over to this scaled-up production.) From there, we shift focus to the priests sent to banish the beast, before a radical change in tone midway through transforms Agnes from a darkly funny horror movie to a haunting character study.
With the deviation in plot comes a change in shooting style, replacing the Steadicam acrobatics of the first half with subdued, realistic camera movements. Just as the story bridges disparate worlds, so does Agnes move Reece from DIY filmmaking into a better-funded indie world. No compromises have been made along the way, however. The direction is just as eccentric—during a weighty dialogue scene, the camera’s eye wanders towards taxidermy on the wall, like a bored kid listening to an adult conversation—and the script still adheres to Reece’s self-described style of “people talking in rooms.” (There are just more rooms now.) The dialogue is surreal, the details bizarre, the performances an odd mix of mannered and naturalistic, and the storytelling radical enough to alienate a sizable chunk of the audience. As with all of Reece’s work, you’re either on this movie’s wavelength or you’re not. But once you catch the Mickey Reece wave, everything else seems uninspired by comparison.
Following a similar path is the Adams family, a literal family of father, mother, and teenage daughter who make movies together in upstate New York. As daughter Zelda Adams has grown up, the Adamses have shifted from family drama to spookier fare, and their latest, Hellbender, is one of the more unique takes on both occult horror and coming-of-age tales we’ve seen in a while. Zelda and her real-life mom, Toby Poser, star as Izzy and Mother, a mother-daughter duo living a cloistered life in a rural woodlands farmhouse. Mother tells Izzy that she’s got a rare autoimmune disease that necessitates her isolation, but really the pair are “hellbenders,” described at one point as “a combination witch, demon, and apex predator.”
Basically, these women are not fully human, and once Izzy discovers that she derives supernatural powers from consuming the blood of living beings—preferably blood laced with delicious fear hormones—her transformation into a fearsome witch is inevitable. Zelda Adams, Poser, and dad John Adams all co-wrote and co-directed the film, and Hellbender is laced with psychedelic special effects and a strong command of the fundamentals of the genre, including eerie atmosphere and rising tension. It also features some pretty badass hard-rock tunes performed by Zelda and Toby, decked out in capes and KISS-style face paint in the band rehearsal scenes that dot the film. Hellbender has been acquired by Shudder for a 2022 release, which will bring the trio’s work to an international streaming audience. I’m eager to see what they do with the increased exposure.
Reece and the Adamses developed their styles completely outside of even the independent filmmaking scene. Giving Birth To A Butterfly director Theodore Schaefer, on the other hand, began his career as an assistant director on indie features before directing one of his own. That’s not to say that this is a mainstream film in any way. It was shot on 16mm, which isn’t the cheapest way to make a movie at this juncture in film history, but that choice proves both intelligent and ultimately economical, the color saturation and organic texture of celluloid lending production value to the film while also heightening its already dreamlike tone. The word “Lynchian” is overused, and imprecisely applied to anything that’s even a little bit strange. But it’s appropriate here, as Schaefer’s film plays with dreams, archetypes, and the frightening, faceless underbelly of American life in a way that’s clearly inspired by David Lynch’s work. This film is all about strange portents, eerie industrial noises, and imagery that’s unsettling in a way that’s difficult to articulate.
The film takes place in a parallel universe that looks and acts like suburbia, just ever so slightly off, and almost imperceptibly so at times. Our first hint is mustachioed dad Daryl (Paul Sparks), who speaks and acts like a Tim Robinson character in the sense that not only is he unable to read a room, he doesn’t seem to understand “reading the room” as a concept. After a meandering opening act that sees Schaefer slowly turn the proverbial surrealism dial to a “10,” we follow Daryl’s wife, middle-aged pharmacist Diana (Annie Parisse), and her son’s pregnant girlfriend, Marlene (Dickinson’s Gus Birney) on a road trip to retrieve the savings Diane lost in an internet scam. It would be nice if the precisely calibrated vibes were in the service of something more substantial and less clearly indebted to its influences. But flimsy as it is, Giving Birth To A Butterfly shows promise.
Another indie making its world premiere at Fantasia, What Josiah Saw, has the opposite problem: There’s a lot of story crammed into this two-hour horror/drama/crime hybrid from Bellflower producer Vincent Grashaw, and the writer-director piles deviancy on top of taboo until your trauma receptors go numb. Split into three chapters, each of them distinct enough that the film feels like an anthology, What Josiah Saw starts out as grim psychological drama before morphing into a Texas-style Pulp Fiction riff. The middle section, about a heroin-addicted sex offender stealing a cache of Nazi gold from Romani carnival workers, is entertainingly sleazy, and Nick Stahl turns in a strong performance as the larcenous dirtbag in question. But once Stahl’s character returns to the family farm to confront the siblings featured in the other chapters, What Josiah Saw goes over the top in terms of shock value, overshadowing whatever provocative merits it had before.
Grashaw’s film is being promoted as this year’s answer to 2020 Fantasia selection The Dark And The Wicked, which is true in the sense that it’s about an estranged family confronting the past on an isolated farm. But that was a more conventional horror movie than this one, which belongs to “the real monster is human nature” school of nihilism. Still, there are people out there who like edgy for edgy’s sake, and they may get a twisted kick from rolling around in the psychosexual muck with this film. Sometimes filmmakers are outsiders by default, thanks to geographic and monetary barriers, and sometimes a film deliberately crosses boundaries, making its creators outsiders by choice. What Josiah Saw is one of the latter.
Speaking of transgression, we’ll be back next week with a review of The Sadness, a film that’s being described as a return to the unspeakable horrors of Hong Kong’s infamous Category III movies. It won’t be all trauma and carnage, however, with a review of the Sundance animated feature Cryptozoo (making its provincial debut at Fantasia), the similarly Sundance-selected supernatural mystery The Night House, and a selection of noteworthy titles as eclectic as we’ve come to expect from this wide-ranging and adventurous festival.